Heidi Larson: “So much remains determined by the capacity of people on the frontlines to explain, advocate, and respond in ways that are almost entirely dictated by context”

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the preface by Heidi Larson for the report “Overcoming barriers to vaccine acceptance in the community: Key learning from the experiences of 734 frontline health workers”. This report is presented today by The Geneva Learning Foundation (LinkedIn | YouTube | Podcast | Twitter) at the International Social and Behavior Change Communication Summit 2022 (#SBCCSummit) held 5-9 December 2022 in Marrakech, Morocco. What is the Geneva Learning Foundation? Get the full reportRead the preface by Heidi Larson

My own consciousness of the fragile equilibrium sustaining vaccine confidence came from working with immunization programmes and local health workers to defuse rumors that threatened to derail vaccination initiatives. Twenty years ago, this meant traveling to countries to meet, build relationships with, and work side-by-side with frontliners.

Since that time, the corpus of research on the topic has grown tremendously. Elaborate behavioral science frameworks, supported by robust monitoring and evaluation, are now available to guide policy makers, donors, and other decision makers, for those who have the time and resources to implement them. 

Nevertheless, there remains a gap in our understanding of how the complex dynamics of change actually happen, especially at the most local levels. For this we need to listen to the local experiences and voices of those at the front lines who can tell the real-life stories of how these complex dynamics are navigated.

I found the idea of this report fascinating: 734 health professionals from all levels of the health system took time out from their demanding daily duties to reflect on their practice, describing and then analyzing a situation in which they successfully helped an individual or a group accept or gain confidence that taking vaccines would protect them from disease. Furthermore, they did this during four weeks of remote collaboration at a very crucial historical moment, months before the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine were to arrive in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Reading this report, I experienced a sense of discovery. The stories shared reminded me of my early work with colleagues working at the local levels, and gave me renewed appreciation of   these health professionals who faced even greater challenges in the face of a deadly pandemic. I could feel how hard it is to remain that ‘most trusted adviser’ to communities, and how so much remains determined by the capacity of people on the frontlines to explain, advocate, and respond in ways that are almost entirely dictated by context, in this case a highly uncertain and evolving pandemic.

I could also feel the tensions due to the imperfection of a participatory methodology that did not neatly fit the conventions and norms of expert-led research. Conventional research has seldom been able to access such local narratives, and even less so with such a large and diverse sample. Furthermore, the peer learning methodology used by the Geneva Learning Foundation meant that there was an immediate benefit for participants who learned from each other. Rather than research subjects or native informants, case study authors were citizen scientists supporting each other in the face of a common challenge. The scale, geographic scope, and diversity of contexts, job roles, and experiences are also strengths of this work. 

Supporting health workers, already recognized as trusted advisors to communities, requires new ways of listening, new ways of supporting, new ways of measuring, documenting and learning.

It also requires new ways of recognizing the leadership of immunization staff who work at local levels under often difficult conditions. 

In some cases, it may actually be the lack of prescriptive guidelines that enabled local health staff to draw on their own creativity and problem-solving capabilities to respond to community needs.

Rather than generalizations, we should therefore strive to recognize that solutions must be local to be effective, recognizing the ability of local staff to adapt to their context in order to foster confidence and acceptance of vaccines, and do all we can to support – letting them be the guide for future efforts.

Heidi Larson, PhD
Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science and
Founding Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine